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What is my doll made out of?

People who have an old doll and are not doll collectors themselves sometimes wonder what their doll is made out of.  They are not sure what the difference is between celluloid and plastic or how to tell whether a doll is made of bisque or composition.  I frequently see online auctions for dolls where sellers have incorrectly described a doll as celluloid or bisque when the doll is actually made of something else.  To help those of you who are not sure of the difference I’ll attempt to explain the characteristics of those materials and how to identify them.



Celluloid is an early form of plastic manufactured between approx 1895 through to the 1940s.  It is characterised by being very lightweight, often very thin and it dents and splits easily.  It can also melt if left in the hot sun or near a fire.  It is not a particularly safe substance for a child's doll to be made from as apparently it can explode if exposed to flames (haven't tried it myself!).

There were various forms of celluloid made including shiny dolls and ones with a matte finish, the matte finish dolls usually being thicker celluloid.  The larger Japanese doll in the photo to the right has a matte finish, the smaller French doll has a shiny finish.  

Dolls made entirely of celluloid are strung together with elastic with the connector being inside the joint (see photo to the right).  Some celluloid dolls, particularly the earlier ones, can also be found with cloth or kid bodies, the head and lower limbs being made of celluloid.

The majority of celluloid dolls are marked by the makers on the back or neck (see photos for same examples) – typical countries of manufacture include Japan, France, Germany and the USA.


Hard plastic

Hard plastic is just like it sounds, hard plastic.  It was used from around the 1950s onwards.  Those early dolls were made of quite thick hard plastic and are quite heavy.  Thinner hard plastic dolls were made in the 1960s to 70s era.  

Hard plastic is characteristed by it being very solid.  It will not dent like celluloid if you squeeze it hard.  Hard plastic dolls are generally strung together with elastic connecting to metal hooks in the joints.  Quite a few hard plastic dolls of the 1950s have walking mechanisms and moving the legs will make the head turn from side to side.

These dolls were manufactured in many countries including the USA, Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand.  The bigger companies such as Pedigree, Ideal and Reliable marked their dolls however many hard plastic dolls are unmarked.



Composition dolls were popular from the 1920s and often advertised as unbreakable, which unfortunately is not the case!  They were manufactured from sawdust, glue and various other materials that were ground up and combined to make up the composition.  The finished doll was painted.

Composition tends not to survive well over the years and is characterised by crazing – cracks that appear on the surface of the composition.  A chip in the paint layer of a composition doll will reveal the dark cardboard-like composition underneath and be another clue that your doll is made of composition.  

Composition dolls can be all composition or can have cloth bodies (sometimes with composition limbs).  The dolls made completely out of composition are usually strung together with metal hooks and elastic in much the same way as the hard plastic dolls.

A few composition dolls were made prior to the 1920s but bisque head dolls were more popular during that time, most of them having composition bodies.



Bisque is unglazed porcelain.  It tends to survive in good condition unless accidentally dropped when it will easily chip or crack (just like a vase or porcelain plate would).  

Bisque dolls were made from about the 1860s.  Dollmakers today like to make reproductions of the early dolls and it is often difficult for a novice doll collector or non-doll collector to tell the difference.  If you are not sure whether your doll is antique or a reproduction you might like to read my tips on how to tell the difference between a genuine antique doll and a reproduction.

Some small dolls were completely made of bisque but the larger dolls generally had composition or kid leather bodies.  If you think your doll is bisque find an unpainted area (inside the head is good) and look at the colour – bisque will be white.  Earlier bisque dolls had the skin blush colouring fired on but later bisque dolls sometimes had their colouring painted on after firing – those dolls are called painted bisque and are easy to spot because the paint has a tendency to flake off, particularly in areas of rubbing like where the head fits into the neck socket and where the wig is glued on.  A painted bisque doll is less desirable than a doll with fired-in bisque colouring.



China is glazed porcelain and has a shiny finish.  It was made between the 1840s and 1890s.

  Antique china dolls generally have molded hairstyles and painted eyes (glass eyed and wigged examples being rare).  Most were made in Germany, few have maker’s marks to identify them.  They generally had cloth bodies which were often homemade.  Sometimes the lower limbs are also china.

Like the bisque dolls, there are many reproductions and it may be difficult for the doll novice to tell the difference.  The early china dolls were manufactured in factories and it is difficult to reproduce the way the features were painted, however collectors learn what the doll should look like with experience.  I've heard that genuine antique china doesn't craze whereas modern reproductions do - I've never come across an antique chinahead with crazing so that may be true.

Pages recently updated:
Bru 2-faced doll (27 June)
Japanese 3-faced dolls (27 June)



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Last modified: 23 Jan 2010